'Hannah, Martin' Potent at Theater

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 19, 2005 | Go to article overview

'Hannah, Martin' Potent at Theater


Byline: Jayne Blanchard, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

How much do we owe our teachers, the seminal people in our lives who taught us how to think? This is the question pondered by political philosopher Hannah Arendt (Elizabeth Rich) in Kate Fodor's searing play "Hannah and Martin," in a striking and cerebral production at Theater J under the direction of Jeremey B. Cohen.

Miss Arendt's most important teacher was none other than Martin Heidegger (John Lescault), the controversial and highly original thinker and Nazi sympathizer. Miss Arendt, a Jew, was his pupil in the classroom and the bedroom. He awakened her mind and, briefly, her body, in an intense affair before he brusquely sent her off to study with Karl Jaspers, the existentialist philosopher from Heidelberg.

Fearing Nazi persecution, Miss Arendt in 1941 fled to America, where she wrote for numerous publications - including covering the Nuremberg trials for the New Yorker and published such major political books as "The Origins of Totalitarianism" and "The Human Condition."

Mr. Heidegger, on the other hand, joined Hitler's National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) in 1930 and was a supporter of Nazi politics until he started delivering critical lectures in the late 1930s and early '40s. Following Germany's defeat in World War II, Mr. Heidegger was forbidden in 1945 to teach, and in 1946, he was dismissed from his chair of philosophy at Freiburg University, a ban that wasn't lifted until 1949.

"Hannah and Martin" centers on the combustive relationship between the two brainiacs and also Miss Arendt's crisis of conscience. Should she reconsider her earlier stance on prohibiting Mr. Heidegger from teaching and write a letter of support?

As she grapples with this moral and ethical sticky wicket, her constant refrain is: "Who will suffer from this ban? The students." She looks beyond social forces and the banality of evil to see her mentor as a great mind and a profound influence on her development as a political thinker. The world may not forgive Mr. Heidegger for his Nazi affiliation, but she can.

Perhaps forgiveness is not what Miss Arendt seeks, but understanding. In a fiery, second-act showdown many years later, when Miss Arendt is in Germany covering the Nuremberg trials, teacher and pupil finally meet again.

Instead of a god, Miss Arendt encounters a shell of a man, his health compromised by being sent by the Nazi regime to dig trenches at the Rhine in 1944 and his mind made turbulent by not being able to teach or wrestle with big ideas.

She wants him to explain so that forgiveness can come forth, but instead of explanations, he gives excuses, claiming never to have read "Mein Kampf" and saying that he was attracted to Hitler because they both loved Wagner and the classic philosophy of the Greeks.

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